Olley surrounded herself in still life art

Published: 7/12/2020
Margaret Olley in her home.
Margaret Olley in her home.

She worked in a chaotic maze of colour and clutter, creating her beautiful artworks. Her surroundings were not for the minimalists among us. Bunches of flowers in makeshift vases littered every available piece of bench space while the tools of her trade, all manner of art paraphernalia and thousands of objects she had collected on her travels, covered everything else. But this was deliberate, as this was how artist Margaret Olley worked. She surrounded herself in still life, producing iconic works of art that now hang in major art galleries throughout Australia.

Born in 1923, Margaret Hannah Olley started life in Lismore, New South Wales, to parents Joseph Olley and Grace (nee Temperley). After a short move to Tully in Queensland, the family settled in Brisbane where Margaret attended Somerville House during her high school years. Art became such a major part of her studies that she dropped one French class to be able to take another art lesson with her teacher and artist Caroline Barker.

During the war years Margaret studied art in both Brisbane and Sydney, where she graduated with A-class honours in 1945. She drew inspiration for her work, from her home, her studio and saw the beauty within everyday objects. Many of her paintings feature arrangements of fruits and flowers, set amid pottery, art and exotic pieces she found on her travels.

Turkish pots and lemons by Margaret Olley
Turkish pots and lemons by Margaret Olley

Margaret worked as a set designer in the late 1940s on such productions as Jean Cocteau's Orphee with fellow artist Sydney Nolan. Other painter friends included Russell Drysdale and Donald Friend. With Friend, she became one of the first artists to paint in the small gold-mining town of Hill End, encapsulating on canvas the remains of the gold rush period in the Bathurst area with works such as Backbuildings in 1948.

In the same year Margaret held her first solo exhibition at Sydney's Macquarie Galleries. Both the National Gallery of Victoria and Art Gallery of NSW purchased some of her works. These included Portrait in the mirror, a self portrait, which is now part of the Art Gallery of NSW collection. This exhibition pushed the young artist into the limelight of the Australian art world.

1948 was a big year for Margaret as she also became the subject of William Dobell's Archibald Prize winning portrait - Margaret Olley.

In the following year Margaret went to Europe where she lived in France, studying at the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere in Paris. She travelled extensively throughout the continent and held her first exhibition there at the Galerie Paul Morihien in 1952. On display were her works of monotypes, which portrayed landscapes and rural life.

By the time Margaret returned to Australia in 1953, her work was in high demand. She was commissioned to produce a number of murals, including the Place de la Concorde for the opening of the French art today exhibition at the Queensland Art Gallery.

Lemons and Oranges (1964) by Margaret Olley -
Lemons and Oranges (1964) by Margaret Olley - Natasha Harth

During the late 1950s and 1960s Margaret travelled and painted throughout Asia, including Papua New Guinea, Malaysia, Cambodia and Bali. Her landscapes and still lifes during this period are a celebration of brilliant colours and shapes.

In 1964 Margaret moved into the now famous terrace house and hat factory in Duxford Street, Paddington. The richly coloured walls groaned to capacity with the items of still life Margaret had collected, but it all became the inspiration for so many of her paintings.

During the 1970s and 1980s Margaret travelled again. This time she visited America, Crete, Egypt, China, Russia, Italy, France and England. She stayed true to her subject matter, where she concentrated on her immediate surroundings. She would continue to paint and exhibit in the early 21st century and was also recognised for her services to the art world, where she was awarded the Order of Australia in 1991 and made a Companion of the Order of Australia in 2006.

Another portrait of her, this time by Ben Quilty, who considered her a friend and mentor, won the Archibald Prize again in 2011. Margaret died later that year, and a state memorial service was held at the Art Gallery of NSW.

Ben Quilty with artist Margaret Olley at the Art Gallery of NSW in 2011. Quilty won the Archibald Prize with his portrait of his friend and fellow artist. Picture: News Corp
Ben Quilty with artist Margaret Olley at the Art Gallery of NSW in 2011. Quilty won the Archibald Prize with his portrait of his friend and fellow artist. Picture: News Corp

The Margaret Olley Art Centre was later built from an initial gift of $1 million from the Margaret Olley Art Trust and is a purpose-built extension to the Tweed Regional Gallery. It involved the painstaking task of wrapping and moving more than 21,000 personal items owned by Margaret to recreate her studio as it was left at the time of her death. This task was undertaken by Tweed Regional Gallery Director Susi Muddiman OAM.

The Tweed Regional Gallery is located on the NSW north coast, where Margaret spent much of her childhood years.

Tales From The Grave - Uncovering family history from down under By Samantha Elley


  • 'Margaret Olley', Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margaret_Olley, accessed 13th November, 2020
  • 'Margaret Olly - biography', Art Gallery of NSW, https://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/artists/olley-margaret/, accessed 13th November 2020
  • 'Margaret Olley - artist (1923 - 2011)', Cooks Hill Galleries, https://cookshillgalleries.com.au/pages/margaret-olley-artist, accessed 13th November, 2020
  • 'How Margaret Olley's Sydney home ended up on our patch', Northern Star, 23rd November, 2018, https://www.northernstar.com.au/news/how-margaret-olleys-sydney-home-ended-up-on-our-pa/3583368/, accessed 13th November, 2020  

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